Zambia, which defaulted on payments to bondholders in November, is doubling down on debt with a high-stakes bet that nationalizing one of its biggest copper mines will help rescue its flailing economy.
Once seen as among the most investment-friendly countries in the region, the landlocked nation in south central Africa is the most extreme example of a wave of populist governments in mining-dependent countries that are struggling to pay the bills after borrowing for infrastructure in recent years. Zambia was the first country on the continent to register a pandemic-era default on a sovereign debt payment late last year when it missed a $42.5 million interest payment on some of its $3 billion of dollar-denominated bonds.
The country has some $12 billion in external debt, including $3 billion in international bonds and large loans from Chinese state-owned lenders. The government hasn’t said exactly how much it owes to Chinese lenders as a whole. Johns Hopkins University’s China-Africa Research Initiative estimates that Zambia has signed some $9.9 billion in loans from China, although not all of that money has been drawn.
But in January, Zambia’s state-owned mining company took on $1.5 billion in debt to take over a Glencore PLC copper mine, Mopani Copper Mines PLC, the latest in a string of moves that has remade the country into an exemplar of resource nationalism.
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